A still life of a resting dog, a Dutch flagship navigating choppy waters, locals skating through the bare trees of a wintry village. Paintings of these scenes are part of two prime hoards of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings donated by local collectors to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The two collections include 113 works by 76 artists, the MFA announced on Wednesday. Taken together, these donations will constitute the largest donation of European paintings in the institution’s nearly 150-year-old history, and nearly double the museum’s collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings.
MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum said the collections amassed and lovingly nurtured will help the museum tell new stories “of a moment in art history when art begins to be created and shared with the masses, the middle class people”.
Boston-area collectors Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie began collecting Dutch works in the 1980s. The collection includes works by Rembrandt, Gerrit Dou and Peter Paul Rubens. Among the paintings are vibrant still lifes, rich landscapes and seascapes, and intimate portraits, including Rembrandt’s “Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, Aged 62” from 1632.
Rose-Marie van Otterloo said Peter Sutton, former curator of European art at the MFA, encouraged her and her husband to focus on collecting this genre.
She remembered Sutton asking them why they collected horse-drawn carriages and British sports paintings and watercolors. “He made it clear to us that since we both spoke the Dutch language and our heritage was Dutch and Flemish, it would be natural to collect Old Masters.”
He took the couple to auction houses and introduced them to dealers. “And then it didn’t take long to buy our first painting – a Jan van Goyen – which we still own today,” said Rose-Marie van Otterloo. Works from the collection the couple donates to the MFA have been exhibited at the Peabody Essex Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery.
Teitelbaum, who became the museum’s director in 2015, said conversations with the two couples focused on “what these collections could do together that one could not create focus and legacy – not for collectors – but for the art itself.”
The donation will cement the van Otterloos and Weatherbies’ decades-long relationship with the MFA.
“Our wish is that the MFA treats our paintings the same way as we do,” said Rose-Marie van Otterloo. “That means we want them to lend to other institutions, take care of them like we do, and use them as an educational tool for curators, restorers, and all students who study art history or who are interested in art.
As part of the deal, the MFA will also create the Center for Netherlandish Art, which has long been a dream of the van Otterloos. This includes their donation of the Egbert Begemann Library, which will allow students, scholars, curators and restorers to dig into material from what is known as the Golden Age in the Netherlands.
Susan and Matthew Weatherbie share similar visions for the paintings that have meant so much to them.
“We are confident that the MFA will care for, preserve, and share these works of art with ever-growing audiences through generous loans to teaching museums who share our vision of enhancing object-based learning,” said Susan Weatherbie.
Part of Teitelbaum’s mission for the MFA was to diversify its holdings – including the acquisition of Frida Kahlo’s first New England painting – and attract younger audiences.
Some might think the European Masters might be a tough sell to the next generation, but “I’m not buying it,” Weatherbie said. “Many of these images sing with a contemporary flavor – ordinary people in their daily tasks; glorious seascapes, winter scenes, landscapes celebrating nature.”
The Weatherbies hope the Center for Netherlandish Art will “break down those barriers and bring the universality of this art to life.”
As for their reasons for partnering with the MFA, Weatherbie explained, “For us, the MFA was the natural recipient of these works of art. It is a world class museum with an encyclopedic collection.”
Like the van Otterloos, the Weatherbies have been part of the MFA community for a long time. Former curator Peter Sutton also supported their budding interest at first.
Both collector couples have contributed their paintings to past exhibits at the museum, have served on the board of trustees, and are major benefactors.
As you can imagine, for a longtime curator of European paintings like MFA’s Ronni Baer, these gifts are like a fantasy come true.
“The fact that two of the world’s most important collectors of this material have decided to trust the MFA to care for their collection – to display the paintings, interpret them, research them and train the next generation – is what a curator dreams of. Baer said.
The curator spoke specifically of the exceptional condition of Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, 1632’, saying, “It is one of Rembrandt’s most important paintings in private hands. In our collection, it actually helps us complete the story of when Rembrandt was working as a young artist.
The portrait teaches the artist’s technique, in part because the panel is blank. “We see how he uses the brown ground to create warmth in his black suit,” Baer described, “we see him brush his brush over his shoulder so that the fur on his collar stands out against the dark background. It’s just a virtuoso display of brush strokes.
Baer said she has worked with collectors of Dutch paintings in the Boston area since joining the MFA in 2000. magnitude can occur. But I think curators still live in hope, and hope is fueled by the incredible generosity of these people who truly understand the mission of the museum and who are totally committed to seeing the study of Dutch art and Flemish continue because there aren’t that many people teaching the field in America today.
The curator is particularly happy to be able to work with the painting by Gerrit Dou, “Dog at Rest, 1650”, which will join her at the MFA. Turns out Baer wrote his thesis on the artist.
The van Otterloo and Weatherbie collections will come to the MFA at a later date, but an installation featuring some donor works will be open to the public on Wednesday, October 11 at 5 p.m.